For Missouri to build on last season's basketball success, it will need to rely on unknown and unproven commodities.
Of the multiple additions coach Cuonzo Martin will rely on to contribute right away, only one of those players has Division I experience — and by the time the Tigers tip off their season in November, nearly two years will have passed since K.J. Santos last played competitive basketball.
When he steps on campus as a redshirt sophomore in June, Santos will be a 6-foot-8 mystery to scouts and opposing coaches, who have no idea what the former Illinois-Chicago player can bring to the Southeastern Conference after spending last season redshirting at a junior college where he did not play basketball.
Rivals.com national analyst Eric Bossi referred to Santos as the X-factor of Missouri’s class. Santos was once a highly touted prospect but injuries limited him throughout his prep career. That made him tough to evaluate as a prospect.
After transferring from UIC to Jacksonville Community College, Santos was supposed to play this past season on a team full of Division I players but decided to redshirt after what he called a “disagreement with the coaching staff.” He declined to elaborate further.
Despite coming to Missouri more than a year removed from his last competitive basketball game, Santos doesn’t expect to wear any rust.
“I don’t think I’ve lost a step in my game honestly,” he said. “When I get to Mizzou I plan to hit the ground running. I don’t think I’ve lost a beat.”
Santos transferred to Elgin Community College for the spring semester, which is close to his hometown of Geneva, Ill., a Chicago suburb. With so much free time, Santos said he’s lifted weights everyday. He works out with Mike Miller, a former Chicago Bulls trainer, and his younger brother Nick, a 2020 recruit who currently holds an offer from Creighton.
The 20-year-old Santos has gained 18 pounds of muscle over the past year and now weighs 230 pounds, so he’ll be able to take on physical SEC defenders.
“He looks like a guy that can check into an NBA game right now,” said Achoki Moikobu, Santos’ prep coach at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita.
Missouri will be Santos’ eighth school since he started high school, and he plans for it to be his last.
He played his first two years at Geneva High School before transferring to Vermont Academy and reclassifiying down a year. That’s when he emerged as a top-50 national recruit. Santos had Villanova coach Jay Wright watching his games and even took an unofficial visit to the school.
Then the injuries came.
A few games into his stint at Vermont Academy, Santos broke his right foot while attempting to block a shot.
He then transferred to South Kent in Connecticut for his senior year, when he tore a ligament in his right thumb two games into the season on another shot block attempt. Santos only played 10 games that year and then broke a different bone in the same foot during the summer AAU season on a baseline drive.
He estimates that he lost about two years of high school basketball to injuries. Wright and schools like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Xavier all moved on from him out of fears that he couldn’t stay healthy.
Santos went to Sunrise Christian in order to show schools what he can do when healthy. He did, which had “the entire Big 12 and SEC kicking the door down for him,” according to Moikobu. But Santos picked Illinois-Chicago over Oklahoma State, citing the closeness to home and the direction the program was heading.
Then he got on Missouri’s radar. As a freshman, Santos played against Oakland, where current Tigers assistant Cornell Mann was on staff. Mann was the lead scout for the game and couldn’t take his eyes off of Santos while watching film.
“We knew going into that game that he was someone that could break out on us,” Mann said. “We didn’t have anybody like him. And we didn’t have anyone that could defend him well.”
Santos, who averaged 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds and shot 36 percent from three as a freshman, was held to six points on 2 for 9 shooting in a 58-57 Oakland win, but Mann kept his name in mind as he changed jobs.
After hearing that Santos was leaving UIC shortly after Mann got to Missouri, the coach immediately started making calls.
“I always knew what kind of player I was,” Santos said of his decision to leave UIC. “I felt like all the hard work I put in, I deserved to play at a high level.”
Mann convinced Martin to watch Santos play in a junior college showcase over the summer and said it took his boss “probably three minutes” to get sold on offering him a scholarship.
Santos ran the point, played on the wing, and guarded all five positions.
Martin has talked about Missouri becoming more positionless by having versatile players space the floor and create more shots. Santos fit the bill.
“You’re talking about a guy that can literally do just about everything,” Mann said. “He would bring the ball up and then he was guarding in the post.”
Santos will have a chance to get game experience before suiting up for Mizzou in the fall as he plans to play for the Puerto Rico national team in July.
“I think he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder,” Mann said. “Because he was highly recruited. He was highly touted. But then you get a taste of humble pie, and now you’re back to a level and a role where he’s expected to perform.”